2020-10-08

Trump Cultists Dying for Their Dear Leader

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by Neil Godfrey

David Cay Johnston

From David Cay Johnston of DC Report: Will Republican Cultists Die For Their Dear Leader?

Years ago when I was a devout member of a Christian cult I got a visit from a local public hospital rep asking me why I had not let my infant child be vaccinated against whooping cough. My child survived a severe attack of whooping cough by luck or chance but I thanked God for not letting him die. One of the great evils of some religious cults is that they reject science and choose to trust their distinctive world view to see them through any life and death crisis. In some places civil authorities intervene for the welfare of children who are endangered by their parents’ beliefs. Compare a Trump follower:

And what about the 11-month-old baby of Kayleigh McEnany, Trump’s press secretary? McEnany has tested positive after again and again showing her fealty to the imaged great leader by going mask-less. Does anyone doubt that if McEnany were a poor black or brown woman—or a Jew or Muslim in a Bible Belt county—that child protective services would be investigating whether to remove the infant Blake for her own safety?

Norman Swan: What’s your analysis of what’s going on in the Centres for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration? I mean, the Centres for Disease Control wrote the textbook on pandemic control.

Eric Topol: Well, somehow that textbook got lost or got thrown away. The reason why we failed so much is because both the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration were basically taken out. This has been a White House Trump-run response to the pandemic. Robert Redfield who runs the CDC has not had any presence. There are things, as I think you know, that are just extraordinary, just despicable how the weekly morbidity mortality report that the medical community relies upon was manipulated and censored. There were guidelines put out about not doing testing, not doing testing on people without symptoms but exposed. I mean, all sorts of things that were done to the CDC by Trump in the White House, by ill-informed advisors, a neuroradiologist that Trump brought in to crowd out Tony Fauci.

So we are in disarray. The agencies who we would depend on totally are not even being able to do what they need to do. The FDA has issued emergency use authorisation for convalescent plasma, claimed that it reduced mortality by 35%, which it has no data to support that, and made it in a so-called very historic breakthrough on the evening before the national convention for Trump. So we are seeing things that…you just can’t make this stuff up, it’s nightmarish.

ABC Radio National. “The US Response to the Coronavirus Pandemic.” October 2, 2020.

David Cay Johnston continued:

This is what happens when a cult arises. The leader is special and believers most demonstrate without even being asked that the messages the leader conveys have been internalized. And if he uses tricks and deceits to fool the public you must go along to remain in his good graces even if it exposes you and your newborn to sickness, lifelong health problems and even death.

The reason, rationality and civil debate envisioned by our Founders and Framers have no place in Trump’s anti-democratic cult. All that matters is loyalty to the leader, a loyalty that runs only one way.

Trump devotees do not believe in faith healing but as a movement they do believe in maintaining their political faith in living by anti-science, anti-intellectual, anti-modernist pronouncements of their leader. They justify their stance the same way each religious asserts and justifies its difference from other cults that have the same type of faith: appeals to special knowledge of their leaders not widely known to the public.

I recall Tamas Pataki’s description of fundamentalism as it applied not only to religious but also to political groups. Some of his points:

1. They (fundamentalists) are counter-modernist. It (fundamentalism) manifests itself as an attempt by “besieged believers” to find their refuge in arming themselves with an identity that is rooted in a past golden age. And this identity is acted out in an attempt to restore that “golden past”.

2. They (fundamentalists) are “generally assertive, clamorous, and often violent”.

3. They are “the Chosen”, “the Elect”, “the Saved”. And as such, they are “privileged” or “burdened” with a special mission on behalf of their deity and for the benefit of the world.

4. Public marks of distinction are needed to maintain their sense of superiority and distinctive identity. Not only for the purpose of maintaining that distinctive identity but also as “part of the narcissistic struggle to be considered unique and special.”

5. There is only one true religion; there is only one correct way of life; and these must be defended against inroads from other religions and secularism.

6. There is an inerrant holy book, prophet or charismatic leader to whom literal obedience is mandatory.

In the world of political populism the followers embrace the vision of their leader. Their whole sense of reality begins and ends with the pronouncements of their populist leader.

I never expected to see anything so retrograde taking over the United States, least of all at a time when following science and professionals is more necessary than ever to understand, admit and tackle so many major challenges. (Nor did I ever expect to see the “dear leader” propaganda videos that are undeniably a par with what we associate with totalitarian regimes, past and present.) The total denial of reality, the calling truth lies, calling dishonesty honesty, belief in bizarre conspiracy theories, it does look very much to me as though much of the United States has indeed broken itself off from reality and closeted itself in a cult fantasy world.

My god, if Biden-Harris win the coming election they better take on the root causes of all of this total madness:

Trump draws crowds because the majority of Americans have real economic grievances, as I’ve written about for decades including these recent DCReport pieces. Indeed, Trump ran for office using many of the phrases he heard me say on television about how Washington policies hurt 90% of Americans.

While he pledged in his inaugural address that “the forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer” his actions documented by DCReport show that he never gave them a thought.


2020-09-22

Beware the “C” Word — Is the “Cult” Label Always Helpful?

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

I have up till now tended to use the “cult” label somewhat casually in association with Trump and his followers. But the word has many different associations and shades of meaning, and I’m only addressing its use in everyday language today and not the technical term to describe normative religious practices. A warning against the use of “cult” in connection with Trump and even with new religious movements was delivered by Benjamin Zeller late last year in The Cult of Trump? What “Cult Rhetoric” Actually Reveals.

Insofar as the popular idea of a cult is an assembly of people who have been brainwashed and are under some form of mind-control, the term simply wrong, according to Zeller. Zeller stresses that brainwashing and mind-control are concepts that have largely vanished from serious discussion and research among most psychologists. That may be so, but I would like to follow up some disagreement with Zeller that is cited in Response to Benjamin Zeller’s article: The Cult of Trump? What “Cult Rhetoric” Actually Reveals

That does not rule out psychological manipulation, though. But psychological manipulation is not a synonym for “mind control”, Zeller infers.

I don’t have a strong enough background in psychological studies to engage with Zeller’s views on “mind-control” and cults but I do find myself in agreement with Zeller’s alternative explanations that are elided when we use the “cult” label:

The actual reasons for his political success require careful analysis by political scientists, not pseudoscientific concepts such as mind-control. Personally, I think Trump’s rise must be assessed by the way he appeals to the power of tribalism, and with it the fears of others benefiting at America’s expense. It’s a simultaneous appeal to the communal solidarity of patriotism and American exceptionalism, and the resultant desire for isolationism and retrenchment of Us against the menacing Them. Others view Trump’s appeal differently, but the fact is, it’s not mind-control or brainwashing. However, it does parallel the sort of dualistic worldview of us/them, good/evil, insider/outsider seen in many new religions.

There are other problems with viewing Trump followers as a cult:

To call something a cult is to reject its validity.

While not useful from a causal perspective, the claim of brainwashing holds vast rhetorical power, especially for flabbergasted liberals or establishment conservatives wanting to explain the rise of Trump. First, it absolves individuals of personal responsibility and casts a monstrous manipulator as the root cause of a person’s choices (which, under the brainwashing claim, are not choices at all!). Hence when the mother of Rev. Pavlovitz’s friend posts racist material to her social media account and uncritically accepts the claims of political commentators, Pavlovitz and his friend can conveniently blame Trump rather than the mother herself. Sen. Corker does not need to blame his Republican constituents, but rather a “cultish” phenomenon. This is an easier pill to swallow.

Second, and more broadly, brainwashing and related cult language allow us to dismiss the actual claims and experiences of those who we simply reduce to mind-controlled victims. To call something a cult is to reject its validity. The category is inherently pejorative, which is why scholars use alternative terms like “new religious movement.” Members of NRMs never use this term to describe themselves, and the very word “cult” is generally used as an easy way to mark a religious group as illegitimate. As a former mentor of mine once said, “A cult is just someone else’s religion that you don’t like.” Such groups tend to be small and powerless, and as they assume greater cultural legitimacy lose the “cult” label. Witness the slow transformation of Mormonism—not yet complete—from being considered a cult/NRM to simply another Christian denomination.

That reference to Moonies being gradually accepted as “another” mainstream denomination raises questions that bring me back to those I set out at the beginning of the post. I can dispense with the term “brainwashing” but I am not informed enough at present to know how to distinguish between “mind control” and “psychological manipulation”. But leaving that aside, it is surely preferable to analyse Trump’s supporters in the sorts of terms historians generally use in explaining historical movements.

In sum,

It is rhetorically useful to label one’s opponents as manipulated victims, which negates the need to either explain their choices or empathize with them.

. . . [T]he mythology of cultic mind-control . . .  says a lot more about the power of the language than it does the president himself.